Norimasa “Ken” Tada, the designer of the original Kawasaki Z1, died on August 29, 2021. He had been hospitalized for some time with problems related to a carotid aneurysm. He leaves behind a wife, friends, and fans around the world who fondly cherish the lasting legacy of the Z1 to this day.
Earlier in August, Kawasaki Europe lifted the covers on its 2022 Z900RS SE, which bears a distinct graphical homage to the original Z1. If you’re unfamiliar with the original story of the development of that bike, it’s pretty phenomenal, and tells you a lot about Tada.
Prior to his death, Tada was a co-administrator of the Z1 Historical group on Facebook. Thus, members there were able to interact with and glean unique insights into their treasured bikes, directly from the man who designed them. In 2012, he offered up his recollections of the design process to the group.
Immense amounts of pressure can make even the toughest nut crack—or, if the circumstances are just right, it can create diamonds. Given the trajectory the Z1 set Kawasaki on in the early 1970s, this story would definitely seem to be an example of the latter option.
On March 1, 1971, Kawasaki assigned Tada the extremely daunting task of creating an entire design, including a full mock-up of the Z1. He had to do it by himself, with zero assistants to help him—and he had to have it completed by March 31, 1971. There are no typos there. Kawasaki gave the man a single month to get it done, according to Tada. Normally, such a process would take four to six months, and would involve a team comprised of several people.
You see, after Honda first announced its groundbreaking CB750 in October 1968, Kawasaki went into overdrive. Plans for its next bike, the N600, were almost immediately put on hold. Once Tada was assigned to the task, he devoted every single waking hour to it for a month. Living and breathing the Z1 was all he did, even telling his wife to forget she had a husband for the entirety of that March. Overtime? What’s that?
Still, if you’re able to put your entire being into working on a single project, without having to worry about any other responsibilities—it’s kind of freeing. Tada later reflected that this was one of the (if not the most) rewarding experiences of his career because it was just him, the Z1, and his complete immersion in making the project work.
The Z1 was designed specifically to appeal to the American market, so a teardrop tank was a must. It also couldn’t look like anything else currently on the market—especially not the CB750. Previously, Kawasaki had never had a designer take a crack at styling engine parts—but that changed with the Z1. Tada insisted on the “DOHC” badge, to differentiate from the CB750’s single overhead cam. Engine design chief Ben Inamura thought it was stating the obvious, but Tada held firm. In design, as in engineering, details matter.
Amazingly enough, Tada managed to complete the project by the March 31 deadline. He then presented it to all the Z1 project engineers at Kawasaki headquarters. They liked it, but the true test would be presenting it to Kawasaki’s American branch. On April 5, 1971, Tada and his newly-minted Z1 mock-up made the long flight to Los Angeles, California.
The mock-up had been partly disassembled for shipment, so Tada reassembled it by hand in the motel room where the Kawasaki crew was staying. As Tada remembered, they refused to let anyone into the room—including motel cleaning staff. Luckily, the plan was for the KMC representatives to come to the motel to see the bike, so neither Tada nor the nascent Z1 design had to move from that room.
What did KMC think? Luckily, they liked it very much—but they had one small request. The tank, they said, looked a bit like the bike was pregnant. Could Tada please slim it down just a bit? He considered that a very doable bit of constructive criticism, went away, and the world ended up with the Z1.
What happened to Tada afterward? With great success comes great responsibility—and thankfully, also a pay raise. He also gained a staff of junior designers, and said in 2012 that he unfortunately never ended up designing another bike by hand, on his own.
The Z1 set the tone for Kawasaki’s trajectory into the future. Fans still hold it close to their hearts in 2021, and it has undoubtedly influenced all kinds of riders, engineers, and designers since its introduction. We wish Tada’s family and friends all the best during this difficult time, and celebrate the life and lasting achievement of a singular motorcycle design talent.